It’s a proven fact that the amount of stuff you’ll unload in a garage sale equates to roughly one-quarter of the work it will take to do so. Entirely ignorant of this, I threw a garage sale with a few of my neighbors last fall. On that one really rainy weekend in October.
One neighbor popped open her E-Z Up shelter. Another had the AccuWeather app so we could move my rad collection of ’80s jackets under cover before the really drenching cloudbursts. And though I had papered the neighborhood with startlingly neon telephone pole signs—signs which proved neither rainproof nor readable from passing cars—another neighbor had thought to place an ad in the “Seattle garage and moving sales” section of Craigslist.
God, I love my neighbors.
And I met more of them that weekend—garage sales are great that way. We dragged camp chairs around my portable fire pit and sat in the drizzle, sharing someone’s homemade brownies and someone else’s bottle of cabernet. But the moments I remember best involved the Seattleites Craigslist lured in from other neighborhoods. The Latina from Rainier Beach who might have been the housecleaner she claimed to be—but who negotiated for our bookshelf more like a bond trader. The elderly woman in the red “Make America Great Again” cap who was so busy rhapsodizing about Donald Trump, she never did mention her neighborhood. (Pretty sure it wasn’t mine.) The quintessential starving student, whose Capitol Hill basement now boasts—thanks to the fat five-buck TV he schlepped out of our garage—what may be the last cathode ray tube in the city.
These folks represented the faces of a Seattle I barely encounter. Like lots of Seattleites, I live in a neighborhood of single-family homes—a neighborhood that votes liberal but, like so many single-family neighborhoods, inclines NIMBY. My good neighbors bought their bungalows with grassy yards back when such things approached affordable, and they’re very comfortable in them, thank you very much and… What’s with all these cranes around town? What will become of Seattle’s livability amid all this growth? they wonder. That livability is what makes Seattle Seattle! they insist.
That single-family-home livability has over the years gelled into something very like a brand identity for this town. And by town, what I mean is burgeoning world-class metropolis. “I think what we’re experiencing is Seattle going from a sleepy city to a full-blown city city,” muses Kathy Nyland, director of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. “We’re on the national radar. We’re a destination for global economics. We have Fortune 500 companies moving here. We are not sleepy anymore.”
For those of us who’ve lived here a while, this has changed how life just feels in this city. Rental units have become the majority of Seattle households. Buying has soared out of reach for all but the wealthiest. Urbanist voices, including that of mayor Ed Murray, have agitated for the kind of density that clusters housing near transit, and the kind of accessibility that incents developers to include low-income units. This was the mandate from the mayor’s advisory committee on the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), which two summers ago nearly stopped a city’s heart with its recommendation that all of Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods get upzoned.
The outsize reaction revealed what happens when you mess with a city’s brand. Never mind that all it meant for some neighborhoods was the go-ahead for additions like triplexes and mother-in-law cottages: Nice NIMBYs in quiet neighborhoods like mine went ballistic, and Mayor Murray caved. What he didn’t concede, however—higher building caps and increased density in the residential neighborhoods labeled Urban Villages, like Mount Baker and Ballard—has proved rattling enough for many single-family residents. A friend of mine who lives at the edge of an Urban Village and who currently looks out upon a streetscape of modest 1930s-era wood homes could soon, depending on how boundaries are decided, gaze instead upon…who knows, could be a crowded row of contemporary townhomes. Not the end of the world, she knows. But neither, with the prospect of tougher parking and dubious aesthetics, the serene livability she thought she was buying.
Indeed, if there’s an overarching theme dictating Seattle’s neighborhood scene right now, it’s this: Longtime definitions of what makes this city livable are being rewritten. During one slow moment in our garage sale, a few of us dragged our camp chairs closer to the fire pit and talked about how so many more of our neighbors these days are individuals without homes. About how the Seattle City Council’s connection to neighborhoods—for years the small, informal groups of largely white homeowners called District Councils—would this summer be replaced as official conduit by something called a Community Involvement Commission, intentionally peopled by a more representative sampling of previously underrepresented Seattleites: the non-white, the renters, the low income, the non-English speaking.
What constitutes the fabled Seattle livability for these neighbors? It may be the question of the decade for this city, which is currently undergoing a transformation so encompassing it hasn’t even, for many, sharpened into focus. “Community meetings often just break my heart,” Nyland admits. “It astonishes me what people think, let alone say. ‘Why should those people get a voice; they don’t even speak English,’ or ‘They haven’t lived here long enough.’ I always ask, ‘Who was born and raised here? And how do we determine when we close the door and say, enough?’ Because that’s what we’re saying. And who are we to say that?”
In her recent book Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America, Harvard political scientist Nancy Rosenblum suggests that the reciprocating decencies neighborhood life motivates—keeping our dog quiet because we like that our neighbor stays off his drum kit after dark, cat-sitting for the neighbor who collects our mail while we’re on vacation—make fruitful practice grounds for democracies. Whatever their differences, neighbors have to make it work. Frankly I’d like to see how that plays in, say, the close Washington, DC, blocks where Seattle’s Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos recently bought his home, becoming neighbors with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner and the Obamas. (Who borrows sugar from whom in that crowd?)
But this idea that neighbor relationships can make us better citizens—it makes sense to me. Somewhere amid the soggy dregs of our garage sale, as I watched my neighbor pack up the leftover books while I loaded my truck for Goodwill delivery of the rad ’80s coats that, oddly enough, didn’t sell—I realized that all this labor felt worth it, if only to feel such genuine community among such disparate folks. (Well, okay, that and $900.) But in this civic moment when HALA will place a good many of us into closer proximity to folks unlike ourselves, I got to feel like neighbors for a moment with the “other” I am chagrined to admit I barely interact with outside of my garage.
Perhaps this fizzy new variety within neighborhoods could itself become Seattle’s new livability—a livability based on something more substantial than common socioeconomic status. I think about Seattle’s Neighborhood Action Coalition, a loosely connected band of community committees that got started by a group of gut-punched Seattle progressives in the wee hours of November 9. Now up to eight neighborhood committees and seven regional ones, the NAC gathers neighbors into community centers and church basements to brainstorm on butcher paper, to lick postcard stamps, to plan progressive action.
The rootsiest of grassroots work, among those who define neighbor in terms more deep and authentic and uniting than simply those who share their class—and those who share their fears.